“The President is somewhat restless…”: Enter Bell

By Jeffrey S. Reznick and Lenore Barbian

Enter Alexander Graham Bell

a line drawing in inik of an electrical device

Alexander Graham Bell, drawing of his metal detector, dated “June 25th, 1881”
Courtesy Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Alexander Graham Bell, one of the most famous inventors of the day, volunteered to travel to Washington to help the President and his doctors. He attempted—twice—to locate the bullet with a metal detector he designed based on an induction balance invented by his friend and fellow inventor David Hughes. This device worked with features of Bell’s famed telephone. It consisted of a battery and several metal coils mounted on a wooden platform. One coil was connected to a buzzer and another to an earpiece. The device generated an electric field as one coil was passed over and around the body. If the coil passed over metal the device would respond with a clicking sound. Bell’s induction balance had previously been tested on Civil War veterans whose bodies contained bullets with known locations. Bell’s device might have worked if doctors had not kept pushing him to examine only one the area of the body, and if the metal bedsprings had not interfered.

In a letter to his wife Mabel, dated one-hundred and thirty-two years ago today—July 26, 1881—Alexander Graham Bell described in detail the collective effort to locate the bullet with the induction balance:

Bell as a middle aged man standing in a long coat

Portrait of Alexander Graham Bell, ca. 1882
Courtesy Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

My darling…Yesterday afternoon I arranged that the doctors should send for me when they were ready to use the Induction Balance—and from their manner I judged that it would be several days before I was wanted. I felt tired, ill, dispirited and headachy and went home to bed thoroughly exhausted from several days and nights of hard labour. I did not wake until about eleven o’clock this morning. While at breakfast Mr. [Charles Sumner] Tainter [Bell’s assistant] came over from the laboratory with a letter which had just arrived from the Executive Mansion. I found it to be a note from Dr. Bliss requesting me to be at the Executive Mansion at five o’clock this evening and that the experiment would be made at six o’clock on the person of the President. …his florid complexion rather detracted from his appearance—by giving him the look of a man who indulged in good living— and who was accustomed to work in the open air. There is none of that look about him now. His face is very pale—or rather it is of an ashen grey colour which makes one feel for a moment that you are not looking upon a living man. It made my heart bleed to look at him and think of all he must have suffered to bring him to this. He lay upon his back with his head turned towards the screen. His eyes were closed—and a calm peaceful expression upon his countenance. …We found it difficult to adjust the balance so as to obtain silence. A spluttering sort of sound made its appearance and the hearing distance seemed to be impaired. I sent Mr. Tainter down to the basement to see whether the interrupter needed adjustment but before he could return the doctors beckoned me to enter the room—and the experiment had to be made with the apparatus just as it was. Dr. Bliss took the exploring coils and I listened at the telephone. The screen had been removed and a gentleman knelt at the bedside supporting the President who had turned over on his side—resting his head upon the gentleman’s shoulder and helping to support himself by clasping the gentleman round the neck. His head was so buried on the gentleman’s shoulder that he could not see any person in the room. No one spoke a word during the experiment. …The bedclothes were drawn on one side exposing the wounds and the body of the President as far as the thigh. Dr. Bliss moved the exploring coil from the wounds down the back beside the spine. I was rather surprised at this for I understood that they expected to find the bullet lodged in the wall of the abdomen somewhere in front…

You can read the entire letter here, courtesy of the Library of Congress and learn more about Bell’s efforts at The Garfield Observer the blog of the James A. Garfield National Historic Site.

This post is one of a series reenacting the official bulletins released to the public by the physicians to President Garfield during his illness after the shooting on July 2, 1881.

Jeffrey S. Reznick, PhD, is Chief of NLM’s History of Medicine Division and author of two books and numerous articles on the cultural history of war and medicine. Lenore Barbian, PhD, is Associate Professor and Anthropology Program Director at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. She is author of numerous articles, including “Remains of War: Walt Whitman, Civil War Soldiers, and the Legacy of Medical Collections”, co-authored with Jeff Reznick and Paul Sledzik, which received the 2013 best article award from the Archivists and Librarians in the History of the Health Sciences (ALHHS).